Riverfront Park bench

"Lean Back," a new artistic bench at Riverfront Park that celebrates fireworks and provides a standing platform for viewing them, was dedicated Tuesday night.Photo by Pat Christman

MANKATO — A new sculpture at Riverfront Park, set to be dedicated just before the Independence Day fireworks Tuesday night, is designed to do some serious multi-tasking.

Called "Lean Back," the sculpture by Minneapolis artists W. Tyler Whitehead and Charles Steward, is visual art — bursts of color that depict the "celebration of light" that's the annual fireworks display.

It's a stand-up viewing platform for a handful of lucky fireworks watchers, putting them above the crowd and pointed at the precise angle and direction to enjoy the pyrotechnics.

"You can literally lean on it and look at the sky as the fireworks go off," said JO Guck Bailey, vice president/general manager of Radio Mankato.

It's also a bench, usable by park visitors 365 days a year.

Finally, it's a bit of a memorial to the Great Recession and the community's refusal to sacrifice the Fourth of July despite the hard times. Budget woes caused by the ailing economy prompted the Mankato City Council to cut its funding for the fireworks in 2008.

Bailey and her radio stations led the private fundraising effort to cover the fireworks bill that year and again in 2009, allowing the tradition to continue. When the city councils in Mankato and North Mankato brought the fireworks funding back in 2010, there was a $4,000 balance left in the private fireworks fund.

"We really wanted to give that back to the community, and that's where the bench came from," she said.

Working with Noelle Lawton, executive director of the Twin Rivers Council for the Arts, a request for proposals was issued 15 months ago and the design by Whitehead and Steward was the winner.

The bench is much less fleeting than the original purpose of the donations to the fireworks fund. But the steel sculpture will be a long-term testament to how much Mankato and North Mankato love their "rockets' red glare" even when the economy is in the ditch.

"It's a constant reminder of the community's belief that we need to celebrate the Fourth of July — we need to have a community celebration, always," Bailey said.

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